Aurora’s poet laureate weighs in on what it’s like to connect with the community through the lens of poetry.
By Sara Bruskin
Only the second person to hold the position of poet laureate for the city of Aurora, Assétou Xango talks about the evolution of the job, their goals for the future and how one voice can make a difference around topics such as race, gender, equality and more.
Aurora Guide: What are some of your responsibilities as Aurora’s poet laureate?
Xango: The position is still really being developed. What Patti Bateman and Debi Holen [Poet Laureate Program organizers] had in mind was that they would bring a poet in who can really speak to Aurora about the importance of poetry and do some programs. My predecessor, Jovan Mays, pulled me aside told me about his experiences, so I got to do just a little bit more. I’m hoping whoever follows me can take off with it and do a little bit more, and so on and so forth. Because we’re all just these geeky poets who just want to spread poetry love.
AG: Do you think Aurora does a good job of fostering that creativity and poetic spirit?
Xango: Yes and no. I’ve been gifted my art on a silver platter. Just opportunity after opportunity, and I’ve been really fortunate and really privileged to be in that position. But I also know that is not the most common story for folks in Aurora. I went to a high school today and a teacher said, “We’re really beginning to wean poetry out. Not because any of us want it out, but it’s not on the statewide tests, so we don’t have time to teach it.”
But folks like me and Jovan and all of these other poets are really making it a point to interact with our youth and our community. At the school today, we were talking about social identities and targeted social identities as systems of oppression. Being a black, genderqueer woman, polyamorous, pansexual, non-Christian, all of these things, and then to stand in front of them and be given a voice to say, “You’re still okay. You’re still a good person if that’s who you are, because here I am.”
AG: Have you had any pushback from the city or the community for discussing those topics with kids?
Xango: I haven’t, thus far. These teachers are reaching out to me, so I think they know the climate of their school and the parents. The assistant principal said, “Our population of students don’t look like us, and they’re asking us questions about their identities that we cannot answer and never could.” So they see me and say, “You hold a lot of those identities, so please just talk to them. Let them know that they’re not alone, and answer those questions that we haven’t been able to answer.” That’s what I’m definitely going to carry for the rest of my term and far out of this term, because those kids inspire me every single day.
AG: Some of your earlier poems like “Define” and “Eve” have strong messages about what it means to be a woman and how society treats women. Since you’ve changed your pronouns to they/them, do you still identify with those older works?
Xango: Oh, absolutely. For me, femininity is not tied to a certain body, but the essence of femininity. I’m about to launch a business called Dark Goddess Poets because I still very deeply identify with the dark goddess. My gender identity is still very feminine. I also recognize that it’s fluid, so my pronouns honor that fluidity.
AG: Can you tell us more about Dark Goddess Poets?
Xango: Basically, Dark Goddess Poets is a group of black femmes. We do workshops that deal in deep healing work and social identity work. If you’re ready to have the deep conversations and go deeply, darkly within, hit us up. My poem “Define” is really representative of that — like a full-force flame to replenish the soil. We’re gonna destroy it, and it’s all in love.
AG: Do you feel like you’ve had to rein yourself in from exploring some of those deeper topics while you’ve been the poet laureate?
Xango: Not really, because I got in on the political stuff. Jovan also was very black and very upfront about that in his poetry, and I think Aurora was really craving that, to be honest. I think Patti and Debi really midwifed that because representation by the media in Aurora at that time did not reflect the diversity of its people. Aurora is a very diverse place, and we were seeing a lot of white, and I think that they have been actively changing that.
AG: If you had to pick the most valuable thing about poetry for a community, what would it be?
Xango: *Laughs* One thing?! I can’t. I can only say the greatest thing for me. The most expansive thing about poetry, the thing that makes me feel the most at home is that it can, not only carry, but it welcomes tension. It loves the juxtaposition. It loves the mixed feelings and the one line after another saying opposite things. It just flourishes with that honesty. And that has given me the space to explore myself, and all of my fluid, ever-changing identities and my experience of the world, and my conflicting feelings.
AG: What poets inspire you?
Xango: I always say Toluwanimi Obiwole. She’s a local poet and her writing, her talent, just floors me constantly. And the poets I always have to name started me on poetry. They came to my school sophomore year of high school — Panama Soweto, Bianca Mikahn and Ken Arkind. Then there’s Theo Wilson, or Lucifury, as he goes by. He’s had quite a big role in my development as a poet, and as a person, to be honest. And Patti Bateman, for holding it down.
AG: What do you hope for in the next poet laureate, and how do you hope to pave the way for them?
Xango: I really hope that they are just as — or even more — giddy and excited to take this position as I was. Because I think there’s something really beautiful in coming in with that raw passion. For me —and I think Jovan might agree — this position has matured my raw passion, has really channeled it and given it some structure. I hope that I leave a little legacy on social identity so that they can step into it.